Two solar systems follow the sun

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Photo by Michael Cummo
Paul Adler

Photo by Michael Cummo

Paul Adler

Alternative energy generation on Martha’s Vineyard has been confined primarily to windmills and stationary solar panels.

West Tisbury builder Paul Adler researched the latest innovations in solar technology and chose to install two fully automatic devices mounted on separate posts that use computers and motors to keep them pointing directly at the sun.

The systems sit on Mr. Adler’s grassy, landscaped, south-facing hillside front yard, above his design-award winning tennis court, and give the appearance of a set from a James Bond movie. Mr. Adler says the two systems are among the most advanced systems on the Island.

One is a 15-foot-diameter reflective parabolic dish that he installed three years ago. It sits atop a 12-foot post supported by a concrete footing 3 feet square and 9 feet deep. The dish concentrates the sun’s energy on a small box and generates temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees. It heats water circulating through a radiator in the box to about 200 degrees, providing all of his hot water needs for his home and his swimming pool.

The second system is a 22- by 24-foot array of photovoltaic panels, mounted on a similar post with a similar footing, that tracks the sun on two axes. Mr. Adler said that it was designed as a commercial system and he was told by the manufacturer that his was the first in the state.

“I feel the tracking principle is paramount,” he said. “I am able to gain an extra 30 to 40 percent more sun hours than with any stationary panel system.” He said they are ideal for small locations like his, without a lot of land, for a large array of panels.

“The solar panels produce all of my monthly electrical needs, which cost me almost $300 before and I sell almost $200 of electricity per month. That’s a $500 per month savings,” he said. The installation cost $28,000. A combination of state and federal tax credits brought the out-of-pocket cost down below $18,000 so he expects to have it paid for in about three years.

“The results are stunning,” Mr. Adler said. So stunning that he received a letter from the Massachusetts CEC (Clean Energy Center) suggesting he was cheating, that his system could not be producing as much as he was claiming. The CEC is a state run office that manages the program that tracks and pays for solar energy credits. Mr. Adler provided proof that his system was providing 40 percent more electricity than the CEC expected and he was exonerated.

Mr. Adler said the payback period for active solar was too long to be worth the investment, until recently. “If a clean energy system can pay for itself in seven years or less, it becomes viable and marketable,” he said. “In the recent past, the average life of active systems was 10 to 14 years, and the payback period was 10 to 20 years. When the system paid for itself, it was time to replace it.” He said that active systems today have a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years, and cost half as much as the older systems and, with government rebate programs, the payback can be from two to seven years.

Mr. Adler said that his interest in alternative energy began as a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the late 1960s. “I have incorporated passive energy saving concepts into houses I have built for several decades,” he said. “My first active alternative energy project was a large water heating panel array I installed to heat the water in my swimming pool.” He replaced that system with the concentrator.

Mr. Adler, who has a distribution arrangement with the manufacturer of the solar concentrator, has sold several to foreign countries. “It’s ironic; the biggest buyers of the concentrators are the middle-eastern countries, who have the most oil,” he said. “They claim they want to conserve their oil by using solar energy, and then sell their oil to us westerners for high profits. It sure makes you wonder about our energy policy when Arabs are buying our energy products.”